For Diana Sugg, writing a big story is a little bit like eating a slice of pizza.
Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew at the beginning, said Sugg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor at The Baltimore Sun. Start with the small end. The slice — and the story — gets wider the farther in you go. At the beginning, find something appetizing and easy to “swallow” — an element of surprise, for example, something no one else has written about.
As you reach the end, bring the heavier elements in.
“You need to bring along the people in the story, and the editors,” Sugg said. “Don’t ask for too much up front, before you have the goods!”
Sugg visited Poynter last month to share her on-the-job experience and teach reporters how to uncover hidden stories.
Afterwards, she joined our members-only Poynter Prepared Slack Channel for a live Q-and-A and dispensed advice on that same subject. Below is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk a little bit about how you juggle a big project with daily work? (Good for all the editors in the room to hear the tricks of writers!)
I find organizing the material and stories is a big part of it. Once I come across something bigger, I start a file and start doing a little research here and there, as I can with dailies. I like the image of a master chef: cooking a stew (the project) on the back burner, while also frying eggs quickly (the dailies) on the front burner. That’s a great insight that editors should keep in mind. They’re important in helping reporters understand that they can grow these bigger stories on the back burner, while also juggling other pieces. At a certain point, when you have enough material, then you need to break free to really bring it home, but much can be done in the regular hurly-burly of the day.
I have a question about finding story ideas. Much is made of the importance of getting out of the newsroom and talking to people. What do you do if you can’t get out of the newsroom, or you don’t have time?
I think the conversations, ideas, trends and just crazy stuff that is on the web is an amazing source. My neighborhood is one of those “Next Door” apps — and there are three or four stories I can see just from the posts of folks living around me.
Those neighborhood listservs are a goldmine. There was one in my old hood for families, which was a brewing stew of all the issues, small and big, affecting kids in the city. Now, with Next Door, you can see all the queries, questions, problems, gripes that people in 17 neighborhoods are experiencing. I really encourage journalists to keep the radar open: be tuned in to the junk mail, the offhand comment at the grocery store, the interactions you witness in the airport. There are stories everywhere…and I often found stories in the places that other journalists looked down on: in-house publications, faxes, emails.
What other advice do you have for editors who want to grow their writers, but also have to meet the demands of a regular publishing cycle?
I love nurturing writers, as I’m now a reporter. I think the most important element is to talk with that reporter, to spend a little time with them, to get to know them, to find out what they really want to do, what story they’re hiding that they love but are afraid to bring up. If they trust you, if they know you care, the reporters will work very hard. So spend time with them, and encourage them. Show them examples of other stories that you think they could have done. Have them read widely. There is a wonderful email subscription you can get to The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor’s terrific daily dose of literature. It starts with a poem, then has some info/tales about writers, many of whom struggled. I find it a balm and just a beautiful way to start the day. Have your reporters check that out.
You mentioned in today’s webinar some writing advice from the fabulous Chip Scanlan (whom I love). Could you explain a little more about his encouragement to “tell the story only YOU can tell”?
I love Chip Scanlan! He is a master writing coach. He taught me the nugget I carry with me all the time: tell the stories only you can tell. He means that you need to follow your intuition, go after the stories that are haunting you. What haunts one person is different than another person. But everyone has life experiences, scars, journeys that make up his or her life. Those experiences give you the vision and depth to see other stories, and to have empathy and write about them.
The prospect of being a journalist for the next 50 years is exciting but scary. I don’t know if parental me would be able to balance my current schedule with constantly tweeting, reporting, editing, writing. You’ve managed to excel as a reporter for years. Does this get any easier?
It is a crazy time — I feel like we’re back to the old days when I first started out, and we would hear a bell ring on the wire, signifying an urgent story. I remember writing stories for Philly AP right out of college — you had to write an “am” version and then a “p.m.” version.
I see reporters who are really into Twitter, constantly online, and it does help the reporting, but it also fragments the thinking sometimes. I like the advice to check in to social media every hour or so — or some time frame that works for you – but try to turn it off mentally and focus for awhile. I have to say, it is an incredible reporting tool, so you can’t totally step away from it.
I also think that over time, you may find your way into journalism work where you aren’t doing all those things with an equal amount of time and emphasis. At some point, you let go of some of it, and focus on one or a few areas. I’ve found the folks who do the best work really, truly focus. On one angle of a story, on one part of their beat. So it’s great to have the experience and juggle like crazy for awhile, but I don’t think you’ll have to do it until you’re 50!
You write powerful stories about other people’s pain. How do you take care of yourself emotionally while working on these stories?
That’s a really good question, and an important one, especially given all the suffering in the world right now. I find that focusing on what I can do, through my stories, to help others and to make the world just a little bit better, is what helps me. Being a reporter has taught me in a visceral, raw way how lucky I am. You cover murders and rapes, you see dead people on the highway, you know that you have been blessed, untouched.
But you have to remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I did burn out at a few points. You have to take care of yourself for the long haul: good food, good sleep and work on making a life outside of work. I find that you need to roll with the news – it’s like being in a boat in the ocean. There are calm days, there are days with huge waves. Take advantage of those calm days. Walk outside the office for lunch. Go to a movie. And remember that if you get too burned out, you won’t do any good stories, or be good to anyone.
During the webinar, you spoke about the “pizza slice strategy.” Can you explain what that is? :pizza:
I love the pizza-slice strategy. This is the way to avoid trapping yourself and your paper. Rather than declaring you have a great story and need a week or two, rather than asking a vulnerable person to open themselves up for a huge project, you need to take a step back. Slow it down. Gather some info. Stir your stew. Find the compelling, surprising nuggets. Find a focus no one else has written about. Be a great engine that is gradually building up steam. I gather more and more, and I bring the editor (or I used to before I became an editor) along the way with me.
That means making new discoveries, finding new people, realizing you can get great photography, and watching this fragile plant grow into something special. Let the editor see that, and gradually they will make space for it. (Or else you also do some of it on your own time, which can happen.)
The pizza slice is the image for this: you just bite off at the small angle on the end first…and then the pizza slice gets wider and wider, the farther into it you eat. You need to bring along the people in the story, and the editors. Don’t ask for too much up front, before you have the goods!
How do you decide when to take a new job?
This is usually an organic process. You may be very happy in your job, and then you’re approached by someone else. I know folks who weren’t considering moving on, but then an opportunity comes up and they wind up loving the idea of it and going.
I also know that as a journalist, you can find yourself stymied at points, or realize that you may not be able to do what you want to do, or want to grow to new level, or find a new path.
You need to also consider your life outside work. You may want to be in a different city. You may realize that you have no connections outside work. So it’s a big picture; but if you’re unhappy, if you’re struggling, you should find the guru or mentor you can talk with, to brainstorm.
A big thing for me is being somewhere you can grow, where you can learn and thrive. As Roy Peter Clark calls it, you need to find your tribe. Every newsroom has a different culture. You want to find the place that feels like home.
I hope folks check out the webinar I just did, Finding Secret Stories…It was my first one, and I loved doing it.
More of Diana’s teaching is located in this free online course: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writers: Secrets of Their Craft
What’s your favorite or go-to question in an interview?
My favorite question, which I think I learned from Bill Marimow, is this: at the end of every interview you ask these three questions: What didn’t I ask that I should have asked? What most surprises you about this? And is there anyone else I should talk with? Also, get their cell phone number, saying you need it in case you want to check a fact – but then you’ll have it for later!
Here is a list with even more of Diana’s great tips.